Workforce.com

Exceptional Customer Service Takes the 'Ritz' Touch

January 1, 1999
In an industry plagued by low wages and a turnover rate estimated between 51 and 300 percent (depending on the source), and where the difference between four stars and five stars can turn on bed linen and turndown service, the Atlanta-based Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company attributes the success of its 35 hotels from Boston to Bali on a rigorous customer service training program.

The Ritz-Carlton serves the top echelon of the traveling market. For that reason, the company throws a lot of money and energy at training its 16,000 employees on concentrated dosages of the Ritz credo to "fulfill even the unexpected wishes and needs of our guests." Of course, maintaining such standards is no easy challenge. You can’t be expected to provide extraordinary service with an ordinary approach to customer service.

To learn more about how the company trains its employees on the "gold standards" of customer service basics, WORKFORCE interviewed Leonardo Inghilleri, senior vice president of human resources for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

Why does Ritz-Carlton feel it’s important that every one of its nearly 16,000 employees undergo rigorous customer service training?
Customers who come to our hotel pay a premium for perfection. We have this tremendous challenge to meet and exceed customer expectations. That’s why we discuss customer service every single day of our lives. It starts with how we select our employees. We use scientific interviews to understand if an individual has the necessary behavioral traits to make him or her successful in our company. Only one of every 10 applicants is hired.

What sort of traits?And how do you ‘scientifically’ determine if a prospective employee has these traits?
A person who works for us has to be hospitable, quality-oriented, attentive to details and so on. We’ve identified the top performers by job (waiters, chefs, housekeepers, etc.), and with the help of a psychological test we’re able to determine the ideal profile for each specific job. If you want to be a successful housekeeper, for example, you have to have certain talents; and if you don’t have these traits, you’re not going to be hired. There also has to be the desire to use your talents, which a lot of people don’t have. We interview each one of our employees in a scientific way to allow us to understand if that person possesses these specific talents.

Can you give an example of the ideal profile for, say, a housekeeper?
Our housekeepers have to have exactness, they have to be attentive to detail and they have to have pride in their work. This is important because people need to feel good about their performance.

A doorman, on the other hand, has to be more of a people person. He needs to be able to send a friendly message to a customer when he’s still 100 feet away. It’s called ‘relationship extension.’ You don’t necessarily look for exactness in a doorman.

What sort of orientation does the Ritz-Carlton put its employees through?
An employee who wants to work for the Ritz-Carlton will desire to provide exceptional customer service. But the concept of desire can only exist if we’re capable of enlisting this person into the texture of our company.

Our orientation happens on the first day of employment. That’s when the person is more responsive to behavioral changes, when you can drive the company’s business philosophy into the person’s psyche. If you wait too long, the window of opportunity is closed. Therefore, from day one, we create an environment that’s caring, supportive and energizing.

For example, when you’re a new employee, you’re assigned a trainer who’s with you all the time for the next four weeks. The trainer has the responsibility to explain the tasks, make you do those tasks and review your performance.

How are the 120 hours of customer service training actually divvied up?
It depends. Our entire training system is a combination of two key elements: technical skills and the Ritz-Carlton customer service philosophy.

Technical training is task based. By ‘technical training,’ I mean how to service in a fine-dining restaurant or how to make a bed according to our standards. Learning how to perform a task may last an hour, or a week, and then it’s reviewed. Ultimately, each employee is certified by the trainer. There may be 19 steps to making a bed. Until you make those beds perfectly, you’re not going to earn a certification.

Customer service training is a little more complicated. We train our people how to resolve guest challenges. After all, it’s an imperfect business we’re in, and a lot of things that can go wrong will go wrong. A toilet might get clogged. A television at a certain point will break down. You have to train your people to instantly pacify our guests.

As a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week business, how do you train people to think on their feet?
You really can’t train a person to think on his or her feet. You have to select a person who’s quick in his or her thinking. First and foremost, the person has to be confident in the sole knowledge of his or her job. You can’t expect an employee who isn’t competent in his or her own skills to solve a problem. The way to teach people to think on their feet is through proper selection, strong training and the creation of the desire to satisfy a customer.

We also give them endless hours of resolution techniques for guest problems. We empower our employees to resolve any customer challenge, no matter what. You don’t pass the buck. If you’re a waiter and you hear a customer complaining about a problem with his TV, we expect you to call the engineering department and report the problem, then call back the guest to make sure the problem was resolved.

This creates unbelievable loyalty with our customers. We actually found that our most loyal customers are those who have had some minor problem, yet had that minor problem quickly resolved by a competent employee.

How do you reinforce this type of training?
Traditional companies abandon the person after orientation—but not at the Ritz-Carlton. On a daily basis at the beginning of every shift, we have a lineup meeting. Every employee in our company goes through a 10- to 15-minute meeting in which several things are reviewed, particularly why we’re in business and our continued commitment to ‘gold-standard’ customer service. During these lineup meetings, we also discuss topics sent from the corporate offices, and the same topic is discussed at every one of our hotels throughout the world on that particular day. This creates an ongoing organizational alignment. If you don’t repeat the message, people forget. How do you energize on an ongoing basis someone who has to clean 14 rooms a day? You have to discuss the principles of the company on a daily basis.

What sort of financial and time commitments are we talking about here?
It’s a huge investment on our side. Think about it: Every employee spends 15 minutes every day in a meeting. Some might see this as a 15-minute loss of productivity, but we believe these are the most valuable 15 minutes of the day. We use this time to recognize and celebrate people, and create a sense of belonging. Of course, we also offer our employees competitive pay and a challenging environment. And if they embrace our philosophy, their opportunities for growth and advancement are unlimited.

Does this sort of commitment yield the appropriate results?
Absolutely, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. It takes tremendous effort and discipline from our management to accomplish these goals.

What exactly do your employees come away with after 120 or more hours of customer service training?
From the training, they become professionals in the hospitality industry. In this industry, you’re either professional or you’re a servant. Making beds and cleaning toilets and serving meals are professions if they’re done with pride. We don’t create servants. We create professional employees who have the desire to provide exceptional customer service, and who want to be part of our company.

Are there any special considerations because it’s a high-turnover industry?
Turnover is the single biggest problem of an employer in this industry. But we choose to have a good compensation package to attract and retain the right people. We feel that a successful company is one that’s both a learning and a teaching company. You have to learn from your customers, your employees and the changes in society. At the same time, as a teaching organization, we provide our people with new skills, thereby enriching their lives both personally and professionally.

Does the fact that you have 35 hotels all over the world cause any sort of cultural problems when hiring and training employees in a customer service industry?
We had to focus a lot on the cultural aspects. We’re not an American company that goes into another country and says, ‘This is the way we do business.’ But customer service transcends culture. We don’t focus exclusively on the manufacturing aspects of the business. What we leverage is the sense of hospitality.

Every single culture has its own sense of hospitality. In Bali, we will not ask our ladies and gentlemen to say good morning and good afternoon. Instead, they’ll greet in the traditional way by joining hands and bowing. We try to identify what makes that specific country special from a hospitality point of view. And then we adapt to its citizens’ ways of being hospitable.

How can you make the program more effective?
What we’ve done recently is improve the skills of our facilitators. Our biggest fear is that our lineup meetings become repetitive, and that there’s no passion or emotion. Recently, we’ve done a major retraining of all the facilitators to make sure they’re capable of engaging the participants, enlisting their hearts and souls. It’s not just a download of information. It should be a passionate and emotional moment that re-energizes each employee for the day.

We also survey our employees. Recently, management said that from a personal growth area, we as a company were not satisfying their needs. So we identified programs that helped improve their personal growth. We strongly believe that if we don’t satisfy the needs of our workers, they’re not going to satisfy the needs of our customers. We also believe a better human being will be a better professional.

Workforce, January 1999, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 99-102.